February 25, 2016
Sunday morning and I found myself awake and on the road early heading from Orlando to Daytona Beach to attend my second Daytona 500. It was actually my third trip to the race, but a few years ago, the race was rained out and postponed until Monday and I was not able to stay. There was no danger of that happening as the day was beautiful, sunny and not even too hot, just about perfect conditions for me to watch the race for the second year in a row. I am not a huge NASCAR fan, but I do enjoy most large scale sporting events and this is the Super Bowl of the NASCAR season.
It is a massive event and this year marked the 58th running of what they call the Great American Race. The speedway was unveiling their renovations to the stands and amenities of the place for the first time. The $650 million dollar renovation upgraded and created what they were calling the first ever motorsports stadium. I must admit it is very impressive, but the entire place still is far removed from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which in my mind is the World’s Greatest Motorsports facility.
The pre-race festivities are enjoyable and I had more than a few hours to roam around the infield and fanzone taking in the sights prior to the running of the race and as usual I saw all sorts of cool stuff. Perhaps the coolest thing I witnessed was an induction ceremony for new recruits in to the US Air Force. Deborah Lee James, the Secretary of the Air Force was on hand to perform the honors as were a large contingent of high ranking officers and a number of the pilots from the Air Force Thunderbirds, who were to do the flyover prior to the race.
With Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James
I must admit it was pretty cool to watch the ceremony, which seemed to attract only the family members of those being inducted and a few curious passersby like myself, but it was pretty emotional and patriotic, knowing that this group of young men and women were going forward to serve our country in potentially very dangerous situations around the globe was awe inspiring. The pride and happiness of their family members and of the other military members present was really cool as well and I felt very fortunate to see this ceremony which I might otherwise have never had the opportunity to see.
Of course that was only a small part of the prerace festivities, in the infield I was able to meet up with a friend that I had not seen in 30 years since we were high school classmates. Mike works in the NASCAR media, creating a NASCAR blog and reporting on the races, drivers and teams from his home base in Myrtle Beach. It was awesome to see him and to be able to catch up briefly in person, we have remained friends on facebook for years but seeing old friends in person is always better than online. He met me just outside the NASCAR media center, which is also where the many celebrities who attend the race can be seen.
Ken Griffey Jr., John Cena and Gerard Butler
This year I managed to see and meet the likes of John Cena, Brody Jenner, Ken Griffey Jr., Wyclef Jean and actor Gerard Butler. They all were around in advance of the race, wondering through the media area, through the pits and garage area. It is funny in that fans seem to have much more access to the celebrities present than they do to the drivers themselves who other than arranged media or public appearances are virtually non-existent until the driver introductions just before the start. Access to them is much more restricted than what I am used to in Indy Car.
Wyclef Jean and Ken Griffey Jr.
Brody Jenner and Kaitlynn Carter
Another difference is the massive amount of vendors and souvenirs available. Even minor drivers have huge areas selling all manner of souvenirs, t-shirts, stickers, pins, hats, lighters, and just about any other thing you could slap a sponsor logo or driver image on is available to be purchased and popular drivers like Dale Jr. and Danica Patrick have massive crowds lining up to buy their stuff. Fan loyalty far outpaces anything seen in IndyCar though I did see one cool fan who was wearing a James Hinchcliffe shirt, which I found refreshing.
The build-up to the race is pretty exciting, the crowds are pumped and there is a lot going on and as a race fan, I found myself with plenty to see and do. Shopping is a huge part of the NASCAR experience as well and I bought a few souvenirs myself. Just as at most races that I have attended as the time for the race drew near, the excitement builds and NASCAR and the track have the scheduling down to the minute in a precise ballet of activity culminating in the drop of the green flag.